Posted Jul 1 2010 11:53AM
CLEVELAND -- Midnight came and midnight went and still there was no sign of him.
Surely, you figured, a highly anticipated NBA free-agent market heavy on talent and long on what-ifs -- yet short on comic relief and, well, heavy-and-longs -- would bubble Shaquille O'Neal to the surface. Surely at 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning, the big fellow would show up, maybe with a Santa hat tilted jauntily like his crooked smile, to lighten the mood and alleviate some of the hand-wringing.
But midnight came and went, and still no Shaq. As crowded and frenzied as the summer of 2010's free-agent scene has become, finding O'Neal as even a blip on teams' radars has turned into a massive Where's Waldo? Large-print edition, of course.
Times change, which has never been more apparent than in the wee hours of July 1. Now Shaq is a lumbering 38-year-old member of what many are saying is the most ballyhooed free-agent class in NBA history. Then, in 1996, he was on a list of NBA free agents that looked like a wish list for the folks in Springfield.
Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and Reggie Miller were on the move (or not) back then. So, a tier or two down, were Dennis Rodman, Tim Hardaway, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, Dikembe Mutombo, Horace Grant and Kenny Anderson. But none of them was creating more buzz than O'Neal, free to look around after spending his first four seasons in Orlando (Jordan never was a threat to leave Chicago). And none sent more seismic tremors through the league when he actually moved, signing a $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Whatever LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of them do this summer, they'll be chasing Shaq -- and their general managers will be chasing Lakers legend Jerry West -- in terms of actual free-agent impact and results. West's maneuvers to land O'Neal, adding him to the roster a few weeks after acquiring the rookie rights of Kobe Bryant from Charlotte, led directly to Phil Jackson's arrival, three NBA championships and a revival of the L.A. franchise that continued right through back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
In his absolute prime, age 24 to 32, O'Neal was a monster then. He was thundering home 27 points and 12 rebounds nightly, while warping games way beyond those numbers. O'Neal, in his eight Lakers seasons, earned one Most Valuable Player trophy, three Finals MVP awards, gained all-NBA status each year and played in 122 postseason games.
Now? Not so much. Shaq is 38, coming off his first and possibly last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers in a move that, judged against its ambitions, proved to be a failure. There was no ring for The King, O'Neal failing to do with James what he had accomplished alongside Bryant and Wade. There was no return to the Finals, something Cleveland wanted after its taste in 2007 and O'Neal craved again, too.
The big man averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds in 23.4 minutes, Liliputian numbers by his career standards (24.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 35.2 mpg). He appeared in only 53 games, missing the final six weeks of the regular season with a torn ligament in his right thumb. In the postseason, O'Neal had his moments but his stats were static (11.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), his minutes spotty and the whole run over after just 11 games.
Thus, this summer of uncertainty for him and the Cavs and a lower profile than O'Neal has known since, oh, about fourth grade. His days of domination on the court clearly are past. His years of domination on a team's payroll -- $20 million salaries, nine-figure contracts -- are behind him as well. The bigger question these days is: What about his career? Is that over too?
Shaq certainly doesn't think so. In one of his exit interviews -- with reporters after the Cavaliers were eliminated by Boston in six games from the Eastern Conference semifinals -- O'Neal offered a fresh way of looking at his heavy NBA mileage. "I missed 360 games because of injury in my career, so by my calculations, I still have 3.7 years left," he said. "That means I'm gong to play until I'm 41. I've been here 17 years but I've missed a lot of games, so I still feel I can play this game."
Can he? One longtime NBA general manager mentioned that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played until he was 42, which is a nice reference point for modern big men but not so good when factoring in the two players' way-different body types and training regimens.
Still the former GM said: "I think he can still be effective. Of course you'd have to monitor his minutes. I think Shaq is smart enough to realize that all of us, as we age, what our bodies can and can't take changes. I think he can be honest and ask himself, 'I know I'm not the player I once was. How can I be a complement to the players around me?' "
For the most part, O'Neal did that in Cleveland. There were hiccups: A slow burn when he was benched by former coach Mike Brown through a critical fourth quarter against the Celtics. An alleged locker room flare-up with James on a different day. But Shaq avoided ballooning during his long layoff in March and April, returning relatively svelte. And he mostly dialed down his outsized personality to appropriate levels for his place in the Cavs' pecking order.
But would that continue as his role shrinks more, as his quest for another championship ring gets fuzzier? O'Neal is two teams removed now from his title run with Miami in 2006. His stops in Phoenix and Cleveland had no payoff in the playoffs. He looked sluggish in stretches against Chicago and Boston, clearly lacking lift, failing to finish on lobs and dunks that would have been painful for foes back in the day.
If James were to stay in Cleveland, it's conceivable O'Neal could be back. But at what price? His pride and his expectations might get in the way. If he were to land elsewhere, would he need to play on a contender to keep him focused and on task? Or would it, at this late date, still be about the payday, even if his new crew was mediocre?
"I think he'll be like [Allen] Iverson," one longtime NBA coach said. "A cancer. Ask Mike Brown." Brown, unfortunately, has been in a media blackout since being fired by the Cavaliers in May.
Then again, we keep hearing that Boston could be a workable situation for O'Neal, given Rasheed Wallace's retirement, Kendrick Perkins' extended surgery rehab and the Celtics' desire to make one more veteran-driven run. Shaq has been mentioned for Dallas, too, either because of his role in a possible sign-and-trade for Brendan Haywood or just because Mavericks owner Mark Cuban likes the big man's marketing appeal. Chicago as a backup to Joakim Noah? Back home to San Antonio in a limited role?
There still are NBA possibilities for Shaquille O'Neal in 2010. It's just that, compared to 14 years ago, the Earth doesn't move with each one.
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